In the small but very active international network of historians of Freemasonry, James Stevens Curl is an éminence grise. His beautiful publications on history and architecture are manifold, and Freemasonry has a distinct place in his oeuvre.
Freemasonry & the Enlightenment: Architecture, Symbols, & Influences is an enriched and expanded development of an earlier work by the author, this book being prefaced by that other eminent British historian of Freemasonry, Andrew Prescott. After an elaborate and exceedingly up-to-date introduction to the complex history of the genesis and first steps of the organisation, Curl considers Masonic influence in iconography, architecture, garden design, tombs and music. His thesis is that the influence of the order has been grossly underestimated and that Masonic lore holds a considerable place in the buildings and imagery of the 18th and 19th centuries, both in Britain and on the Continent (with its profoundly different Freemasonry).
Obviously, lodge buildings themselves are treated extensively - for example, the gradual development of the colossus of Great Queen Street in London - but Curl also considers the Masonic element of constructions that have no formal use by the Craft. A passionate lover of classical buildings, Curl holds post-1945 architecture in low esteem. Whether dismissing it tongue in cheek or with overt contempt, the author rejects its lack of references, meaning and symbolism. He yearns for older models where meaningfulness was at the centre of a humane art of building, Masonic meaning being an important part of that. I am not quite sure that all of today's architect-Freemasons would readily agree with the whole of the author's argument.
But whatever one thinks of his aesthetical (and even ethical) appreciations, Curl makes an important point when he stresses the richness of allusion and symbolism in the classical architecture he cherishes. With regard to symbolism in garden design, for instance - and here one thinks of the "Gardens of Allusion" in the Chateau de Beloeil in Belgium and in Dessau-Worlitz and Schloss Schwetzingen in Germany - one can agree with Curl that the well-educated patrons of these initiatives had more in mind than merely offering employment to the poor of the region. I am less convinced, however, that these very evident games of allusion and references are always specifically Masonic in nature. As Freemasonry has borrowed a broad range of its symbols and images from other traditions, whether esoteric or not, one is always at risk of confusing different registers of meaning.
This ambiguity has all too often led to what I like to qualify as "masonomania", the tendency to see Masonic references in everything with a triangle, the number three, builders' symbols and so on. Curl most definitely shies away from such extremes and strives to be prudent in his judgement, but there remains an element of speculation in his evaluation of a number of cases in which even the Masonic quality of architects and patrons cannot be established beyond question. I would add another caveat: even the fact of belonging to the Craft is not necessarily an indication of the Masonic character of an architect's or artist's production. Not all were (or are, for that matter) very assiduous initiates whose every drawing bears the stamp of membership.
Evaluating Masonic influences in representations is a tricky business. But its presence is indeed beyond doubt, as Curl states; perhaps not in very large numbers, but definitely with a particular visibility and indeed sometimes with a rare aesthetical value, too. Hence, Curl's erudite plea for further study of this subject certainly warrants a large following.
Freemasonry & the Enlightenment: Architecture, Symbols, & Influences
By James Stevens Curl. Historical Publications, 384pp, £45.00. ISBN 9781905286454. Published 19 September 2011